Five thoughts on a mid-August weekend of baseball:
1. Free Baseball. Have you heard the one about the Pirates and the 19-inning game? Last year the unexpectedly surging Pirates were 53-47 and tied for first place before losing a 19-inning game that ended with a blown call at home plate; the club finished the year 19-43 and in fourth place, 24 games back in the NL Central.
On Sunday, however, the recently slumping Pirates were 66-54 and suddenly 6 1/2 games out of first place when they again played 19 innings -- only this time they won 6-3 after Pedro Alvarez homered and Andrew McCutchen drove in two more runs with a single.
A loss in Sunday's extra-extended game would have put Pittsburgh in a tie with St. Louis for second place in the Central and in the race for the second wild card, which the Pirates instead now lead by a game over the Giants and two over the Redbirds.
While we wait to see if Pittsburgh receives an equal and opposite lift compared to last year's fall, here are some oddities from the game:
• It was only the eighth game that reached the 19th inning since 1993, and the first ultimately decided by more than one run.
• The most curious twist was that, after neither team had scored since the sixth inning -- a mutual drought of 10 innings -- both clubs scored exactly one run in the 17th inning to prolong the game a few more frames.
• The game's length -- 6 hours, 7 minutes -- tied for the longest of the season, matching a Red Sox-Orioles game that went 17 innings in May.
• McCutchen had two hits, which normally makes for a great day, but he lost two points off his season batting average because he had eight at bats.
• Cardinals pitcher Joe Kelly threw 87 pitches -- in relief. Kelly, who was recently moved from the rotation to the bullpen, entered in the 12th inning and exited with two outs in the 17th.
• Two pitchers pinch-hit . . . and both reached base. The Pirates' James McDonald, who entered with a .140 average, singled in the 17th inning, and the Cardinals' Adam Wainwright, who was batting .125, walked in the 18th inning.
2. Beating up on the left. On Friday night the Yankees pounded five home runs off the Red Sox, tying their season-best . . . which also occurred against the Sox back on April 20. This time, however, four of the homers came versus a left-handed pitcher, against whom the Bronx Bombers continue to feast.
New York has already faced nine left-handed starters in 18 August games and has gone 6-3 to improve their season success rate to 26-17 against lefty starters (.605), the most wins of any AL team and the second-best record, a mere .0006 behind the Red Sox, who are 23-15. The Yankees are 128-79 (.618) against southpaws since 2009.
Such proficiency against lefties could come be helpful come playoff time. While the Yankees have faced a lefty starter 34.2 percent of the time since '09 -- essentially every third game -- three of the current AL playoff leaders have two lefties that are likely to make their clubs' four-man postseason rotations.
The Rays have David Price and Matt Moore; the Rangers have Matt Harrison and Derek Holland; the White Sox have Chris Sale and Jose Quintana. Among the other serious playoff contenders, the A's and Orioles have one lefty starter each, and the Tigers -- who eliminated New York last year -- have none.
Such recent success by the Yankees against lefties is notable given that one of their top right-handed hitters, Alex Rodriguez, has been on the disabled list for weeks and now switch-hitter Mark Teixeira missed the entire Boston series.
Those absences have put more pressure on Nick Swisher to produce, and he has. The switch-hitter has been one of baseball's hottest hitters since missing six games with a strained hip flexor, batting 26-for-83 (.313) in 21 games since making his return to the starting lineup July 29; over his last 12 games he's even hotter, batting .358 with four homers.
"I try not to break it down that much," Swisher said. "This game is something I love to do, and I have a blast doing it. When you go on tears like this, everyone wants an answer of why you're doing it compared to what happened before, but I don't know, man. I don't really feel any different. I just happen to be having a little more luck."
3. Calling their (wild) cards. Rarely can one see two clubs' season trajectories move in opposite directions in such dramatic fashion, but that's what happened in Anaheim as the Rays swept the Angels in four games by a cumulative 37-14 score.
The 37 runs were a Tampa Bay franchise record for a four-game series -- not bad considering that the finale of the prior series was the perfect game thrown by the Mariners' Felix Hernandez. The Rays reminded everyone after that loss that they had made the playoffs in 2009 and 2010, which were the other two times they were on the wrong end of a perfect game.
Right now that rosy spin on some bad news is looking prophetic, as the Rays have won 16 of their last 21 for the AL's best record while the Angels have lost 15 out of 22 in that same time span for the AL's third-worst mark. Compounding the slide for Los Angeles has been the ineffective pitching of trade-deadline acquisition Zack Greinke, who has a 6.19 ERA in five starts with his new team and has given up at least four runs in each of his last four outings.
4. Astros fire Mills. The Astros continued their franchise's extreme makeover this weekend when they fired third-year manager Brad Mills, whose first major league managerial gig ends with a 171-274 record (.384), including a 39-82 mark (.322) this summer. He wasn't given much to work with on his roster, and the results were poor, including a recent 4-34 stretch.
With a new owner, Jim Crane, and new general manager, Jeff Luhnow, taking over before the season, the dismissal of Mills is hardly surprising, given the results and the new regime's work in overhauling the roster -- Houston has traded 10 players since spring training and shed roughly $40 million in payroll. Only three players on the 40-man roster currently have an annual salary of more than a million, and two of them are on the disabled list.
Houston has installed Triple-A manager Tony DeFrancesco as its interim skipper for the rest of the season, and one can understand wanting to give someone a tryout of sorts for the rest of the season before making a decision on a more permanent replacement.
It'd be natural to expect Houston to hire someone with a player development background -- such as a minor league manager -- given the youth of its club and the patience it'll need to build a winner, but Luhnow's Astros are hardly a lock to do anything typical. They hired a "director of decision sciences," considered changing the team's name and have discussed removing the centerfield hill in Minute Maid Park this offseason. Nothing seems sacred.
The timing was a bit unusual, with the news coming late Saturday night. With Luhnow telling reporters in Houston the decision to replace Mills was made a week ago, why wait until after this particular loss and not any of the other four this week? Why not make the switch at the end of a series when there's a more natural break and a fresh start? Two Astros players even told the AP they learned of the news on Twitter. In the end, however, it's likely few will remember the odd timing and this personnel move will just be a footnote in the sequence of a long process.
5. SOS (Strength of Schedule) in the desert. The news of Melky Cabrera's 50-game suspension most obviously helped the Dodgers, who were tied with the Giants when the ban was handed down on Wednesday. But it also opened the door a little wider for the Diamondbacks, who began that day 6 1/2 games out of the NL West. After winning four straight, they are now 4 1/2 games behind the Dodgers and Giants, who are tied at the top.
Can Arizona advance further? While playing 24 of its final 41 games at home -- where it is 82-56 (.594) since the start of 2011 -- is promising, it may matter less than its strength of schedule. The Diamondbacks have only 18 games remaining against clubs with winning records -- and half of them come in a trio of three-games series against the Cabrera-less Giants.
The note about the Diamondbacks' remaining opponents may be more noteworthy than the location of their games, as they've had inordinate difficulty against the better clubs, winning just four series all season against teams with records over .500: Giants (season's opening weekend), Athletics (mid-June) and Dodgers (twice in July).